More than 60 years after the first satellite was launched into orbit and the Space Race officially began, space travel remains one of, if not the most, impressive things mankind has ever accomplished. All these years later, it’s still hard to even fathom the fact that humanity was able to create a massive piece of heavy machinery equipped with enormous jets capable of taking humans beyond the confines of our planet and into the outer reaches of space. This begs the question: Throughout this more than half-century of space travel, what is the largest rocket of all time? And what are the top ten contenders? Let’s take a look at the specs, from height to weight to overall size, to determine the largest rocket the world has ever seen.
#10: The Space Shuttle
First launched from Kennedy Space Center in April of 1981 and put out of commission in July of 2011, the United States got a solid 30 years of use out of the Space Shuttle: a 211 billion dollar low orbital spacecraft that could be reused launch after launch. Its size and specs are impressive — a height of 184 feet, a diameter of 29 feet, a weight of nearly four and a half million pounds — and paint a full picture of this iconic staple of the NASA program for more than a quarter-century. By the time of its retirement, the Space Shuttle program saw over 130 successful launches and only two failures.
#9: The Energia Rocket
A very early super-heavy lift launch vehicle out of the Soviet Union, the Energia rocket only saw two launches in its short history from, May 1987 to November 1988. Still, while its time as a launch vehicle may have been short, its size makes it an important part of history and a rocket worth mentioning here. Coming in at a height of 192 feet and a weight of over five million pounds, these specs help illustrate the significance of the Energia and cement its place on this list. Not to mention, there have been rumblings over the past several years about reviving the Energia for a third launch. Alas, until a new launch date is announced, we’ll simply have to focus on these ‘80s-era launches.
#8: The New Glenn Rocket
Still in development with no specific launch date set beyond a ballpark estimate of 2023 or beyond, the New Glenn heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle is a product of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin aerospace program that has already been delayed several times. First expected to launch in 2020, the rocket has been pushed back a couple more times since this initial setback. However, because it’s enormously important to get everything right and in working order, no one is that disappointed by these continued delays. By the time it’s complete, the New Glenn will stand at 322 feet tall and a diameter of 23 feet with a total weight still to be determined.
#7: The Falcon Heavy Rocket
If there’s one thing to know about the Elon Musk-founded aerospace program SpaceX, it’s that shooting for the stars just isn’t enough. With rockets like the Falcon Heavy, a reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle first launched in 2018, the true goal is much closer to Mars and beyond. At the time of its development, the Falcon Heavy became the most powerful rocket in use. At 230 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and with a weight of three million pounds, the Falcon Heavy has three reusable boosters that give it 1.7 million pounds of pure thrust. While it was initially conceived as a way to transport humans to space, Elon Musk and SpaceX now plan to save this responsibility for the upcoming Starship (more on that later).
#6: The Delta IV Heavy Rocket
Think of the Delta IV Heavy rocket as the United Launch Alliance’s answer to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy: a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a spectacular amount of thrust, a whole lot of height, and only a modest amount of weight. Created under the partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy has been in operation since 2004 and is expected to retire after a few more flights in 2024. 236 feet tall, 49 feet wide, and with a weight of just over one and a half million pounds, the Delta IV Heavy is second only to the Falcon Heavy. While Elon Musk and SpaceX’s trusty heavy-lift launch vehicle might have a higher capacity, the Delta IV Heavy still comes out ahead when ranking them by size. It takes the cake by just six feet in height and nine feet in width.
#5: The Ares I Rocket
While the Ares I launch vehicle never got to see any action, there’s no doubt it would have been one of the largest rockets known to man upon its first launch. Developed and manufactured by NASA under its Constellation program — which aimed to take mankind back to the moon after the completion of the International Space Station — the Ares I was also part of NASA’s plan to launch the spacecraft, Orion. Orion was poised to be the follow-up to the Space Shuttle. Coming in at 308 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter, the six billion dollar project was canceled in 2010 (alongside many other NASA projects) after a successful prototype flight in October of 2009.
#4: The Long March 9 Rocket
Currently, under development by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the Long March 9 rocket is a super-heavy carrier rocket slated for its first flight somewhere between 2028 and 2029. Upon a successful launch, the goal is for the Long March 9 to take crews to the moon and beyond in the early 2030s. Boasting a height of 338 feet and a weight of nearly nine million pounds, the Long March 9 is a true behemoth (not to mention its more than 300 thousand pounds of payload to Low Earth orbit).
#3: The Saturn V Rocket
While the Falcon Heavy and the Delta IV Heavy are competing for the largest and most powerful rocket currently in use, the Saturn V takes the cake for the biggest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever used. Initially conceived for the Apollo program, the Saturn V helped launch more than a dozen Apollo program missions from Kennedy Space Center between 1964 and 1973. There’s no doubt the Apollo program needed the Saturn V to work: 363 feet tall and weighing more than six and a half million pounds, Kennedy Space Center had never seen a rocket so large and powerful and has never seen one since.
#2: The Space Launch System
Currently, in the works from NASA and development since 2011, the Space Launch System — or SLS — is scheduled to launch for the first time after August 2022. Conceived as the Ares I’s replacement and the Space Shuttle’s successor, NASA’s SLS will be the launch vehicle of choice for deep space exploration throughout the remainder of the 2020s (perhaps even a manned mission to Mars, should all go according to plan). Upon its completion, the SLS will be 365 feet tall and weigh around five and a half million pounds.
#1: The Starship Rocket
Coming in at number one in this ranking of the largest rockets of all time is none other than SpaceX’s Starship super-heavy spacecraft. Slated to be the tallest, most powerful rocket ever built in the history of man, the spacecraft towers above the competition at 400 feet tall and weighing in at over 10 million pounds in all. Pending approval from the powers that be, the Starship rocket should be launching later in 2022 with planned launch sites being constructed at SpaceX’s Starbase in Texas as well as Kennedy Space Center in Florida and two undisclosed offshore platforms.
Looking for more? Check out these articles: Discover the Largest Rocket Ever Created by Man and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket: Specs, Size, History, and More.